Congress must act to provide millions of children with pandemic food assistance

Congress must act to provide millions of children with pandemic food assistance
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The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (Families First Act) created a set of expansions to federal food assistance programs designed to provide relief to families across the nation struggling with the economic disruptions caused by the COVID-19 public health emergency. 

One of the reforms was the creation of a pandemic electronic benefit transfer (P-EBT) program to provide low-income families with children additional funds to offset extra food expenses while schools are closed because of the pandemic. 

Since the law was passed on March 18, only four states have received approval for P-EBT programs. The school year is only a few weeks away and urgent action is needed to make P-EBT effective for the millions of children it was meant to serve.

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School closures are particularly difficult for children receiving free or reduced-price school meals. Their families have already tight food budgets, which are stretched even more because they must now cover additional meals at home. P-EBT was designed to help.

Under the P-EBT program, households with children could receive about $114 per child per month when a child would have received free or reduced-price meals under the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act if not for the school closures. 

To be eligible, schools must be closed for at least five consecutive days during the designated public health emergency. Given the program’s scope, it may include low-income families who currently receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits as well as many who do not participate in SNAP, provided that children qualify for free or reduced-price school meals. A recent U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) memorandum noted that P-EBT eligibility includes children attending schools in high poverty areas subject to community eligibility, in which schools serve free or reduced-price meals to all students without the need for individual families to qualify.

A benefit of approximately $114 per child per month could be a tremendous resource for families struggling with layoffs and furloughs. Unfortunately, the P-EBT program’s effectiveness is hamstrung, and immediate changes are needed to allow families to access the program’s benefits and provide much-needed stimulus to these households and local economies.

More states must participate in P-EBT. Residents of a state cannot access P-EBT benefits until that state starts a P-EBT program. To do so, each state must first apply to the USDA with a detailed P-EBT program plan. As of April 15, only nine states had done so: Arizona, Kansas, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, Oregon, North Carolina and Rhode Island.  Of these, USDA has approved only plans from Michigan, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and North Carolina. This means that 41 states have not even applied to start a P-EBT program.

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The Families First Act limits benefits for families to times “during which the school would otherwise be in session.” It is already mid-April, and school years will end within weeks. While P-EBT was designed to offset meals children would receive at school, P-EBT should continue into the summer months, especially since it appears that P-EBT will not be operational in the vast majority of states by the time the school year ends.

The Families First Act also limits the P-EBT program to the 2020 fiscal year.  The federal government’s fiscal year ends this September, when many schools would just be coming back into session. As it stands, the 41 states that have not yet submitted P-EBT plans may run out of time, faced with children returning to school this autumn just as the program, by its own terms, will be coming to an end.

Simple changes to P-EBT can drastically improve the program’s ability to serve low-income families with children. First, the program should be expanded to the summer months, and eligibility provided to children who meet the free or reduced-price qualifications applicable during the school year. Second, the program should be expanded to the length of the declared public health emergency or the 2020 calendar year. Third, USDA and state agencies should work collaboratively to both speed the submission and review of state P-EBT plans and create public information campaigns to assist families in understanding and using their P-EBT benefits.

Nearly a month after its creation, P-EBT program benefits are not available in most states, where these benefits are unlikely to materialize before the end of the school year — and possibly before the end of the 2020 fiscal year. In order to make P-EBT effective, straightforward changes are needed, including a summer expansion.

Tommy Tobin is an attorney who focuses on food litigation at Perkins Coie LLP.